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Philosophical Materialism or the Materialist Conception of History

PHILOSOPHICAL MATERIALISM
OR THE MATERIALIST
CONCEPTION or HISTORY
Alison Assiter
Introduction
‘Marxism is a materialism’. This idea has become
co.mmonplace. Usually, it amounts to placing Marx
and Marxism inside a philosophical tradition; one
whose roots lie in the atomistic philosophies of
De.mocritus and Epicurus. Much r~cent ‘Marxist’

materialism imitates or reproduces many of the
ideas of the 18th-century French ‘Encyclopaedists’.

. Lenin, in Materialis.m and Empirio Criticism,
vindicates D ‘Holbach; recent Marxists defend Lenin.

In .my view, the spirit of Marx’s writings on this
subj ect is lost by placing him inside any kind of
philosophical tradition, be it ‘reductive’, ‘reflective’ or even ‘dialectical’. On the contrary, his
.materialism is an e.mpirical theory about human
beings in history. This is not, however, to say that
it cannot be justified. Ironic is the view, expressed
by a number of Marxists recently, that although
Marx’s materialism is an episte.mology in so far as
it is about what we know and how we know it, it
does not need justifying. In this respect, it is
supposed to be absolutely unlike the traditional
‘idealist’ theories, which set out to justify knowledge clai.ms. These Marxists claim (1) that the
idealist’s question – the request for a justification
of knowledge – cannot be answered, or that it is a
pseudo-question. But the idealist believes his problem to be an important one. To rule him (2) out of
court in this way is tantamount to an admission that
anyone who is an idealist is just not worth bothering
about. At the very least this is odd, for one would
have supposed that the idealists were the very
people the materialist would be trying to convince.

A phYSicist of an Einsteinean frame of mind is
.more interested in gaining the support of a Newtonian physicist than that of aPre-Raphaelite painter.

Similarly a materialist, one would have supposed,
is .more concerned to convert an idealist than he is
to convert a shoemaker.

I propose, in the ensuing discussion, to concentrate
on two kinds of philosophical materialis m: philosophical ‘realism’ and ‘reductive’ materialism.

There is a view in the history of Marxism according to which Marx broke new ground in the history
of philosophical materialis m in introducing a
‘dialectical materialist’ theory which differs from
both. But this is becoming a less influential view,
and I do not propose to discuss it here.

This is how I shall proceed. I shall outline the basic
1 For example, D. Hillel Ruben in Marxism and Materialism: A Study in
Marxist theory of knowledge, Harvester Press, 1977, and Timparanaro
in On Materialism, NLB, 1970.

2 Throughout the paper, ‘him’ should be taken to include ‘her’.

12

tenets of traditional philosophical materialis.m via
what I propose to call the ’17th/18th century
debate’. There will follow a section on Althusser’s
Lenin and Philosophy. Althusser thinks that Lenin’s
Materialism and Empirio-Criticism represented a
break with previous philosophical categories. I
don’t think it did. I shall then give some reasons
for not placing Marx and Marxism within the philosophical .materialist tradition. Finally, I shall turn
to Marx’smaterialism.

’17th and 18th Century Philosophical
Materialism’

I propose to explain some of the views of the
‘philosophical .materialist’ by looking at sO.me of the
17th and 18th century representatives of the tradition. These centuries produced several ‘paradigmatic’ individuals by way of ‘idealists’ and
‘.materialists’, and the various philosophical .materialist theories are present. Historical accuracy is
not .my prime concern. Instead, my aim is to
present a quasi-debate between sO.me idealists and
sO.me materialists. I shall look first of all at
Descartes and Hume as the idealists; D ‘Holbach and
Diderot will be the materialists. I intend briefly to
explain the aims and conclusions of the representatives of the two viewpoints, to see to what extent
the materialist can be construed as having
‘answered’ the idealist, and then to trace the
strands of the tradition in the work of Marxists.

One of the central aims of the idealist was to justify
knowledge of the external world. Though they have
been placed on opposite sides of one fence,
Descartes and Hume shared a belief in the
importance of justifying knowledge. Both saw that
it is possible to doubt the evidence of the senses.

Each one admitted that we ‘might wake up one
morning and find the universe altered beyond
recognition. Both saw certainty as the hallmark of
knowledge. And, although their respective views
concerning what is known differed in some ways,
for both, what is known depends for its existence
upon a mind. Descartes believed that he knew with
certainty that he thought; while Hume claimed that
he knew the contents of his mind, in the form of
‘impressions’ anq ‘ideas’. In both cases, the
starting point of knowledge is something mental that I am thinking, or that I have ‘perceptions’.

The belief in the existence of the external world is
one which has to be justified – DescartdG examined
the question: ‘whether material things exist’ (Pl09
in Descartes’ Writings, eds. P. Geach and E.

Ansombe) and Hume asked: ‘what causes induce us

to believe in the existence of body?’ (p157 Treatise concerning Human Nature, Book I, Section IT, Clarendon Press). The external world is
problematic – for Descartes, its existence is
problematic, and for Hume, it is our belief in it
which is open to question.

It is one small step from the view that the existence

of the external world is problematic, to the conclusion that there is no world existing independently
of minds. And Berkeley took this step. In his
Principles of Human Knowledge, he argued that
from Locke’s list of existents: minds, the ‘ideas’

in minds” and physical things, the last must be
deleted. Thus we arrive at a form of idealism
according to which everything that exists depends
for its existence upon a mind. There are two views
wrapped up here: (i) that everything we know about
is dependent upon a mind – there is no’ knowable
mind-independent reality; and (ii) that all there is is
either identical with a mind or dependent for its
existence upon a mind (See Of the Principles of
Human Knowledge, Clarendon Press). Berkeley,
then, is an idealist both in the episte.mological and
in the ontological sense, whereas Descartes is an
ontological dualist.

The 18th-century materialist response to these
views is that the idealist conclusion denies what
natural science tells us: that the world is made up
of matter and motion, and nothing but these things.

According to D ‘Holbach ‘man is a being purely
physical’ (P2 The System of Nature, London, 1839),
‘his ideas, his will, his actions are the necessary
effects of those qualities infused in him by nature,
and of those circumstances in which she has placed
him’, (ibid, p2). D’Holbach and Diderot argued that
human beings and other animals are just like inert
.matter, except that the parts are organised differently. Diderot: ‘From inert matter, organised in a
certain way, and impregnated with other inert
matter, and given heat and motion, there results
the faculty of sensation, life, me.mory, consciousness, passion and thought’ (p178, A Conversation
between D’Alembert and Diderot: in 18th-century
Philosophy, ed. Lewis White Beck, The Free
Press, New York, 1966). And D’Holbach: ‘Man,
like all the beings in nature, experiences the
impulse of attraction and repulsion; the motion
excited in him differing from that of other beings,
only because it is not concealed, and frequently so
hidden, that neither the causes which incite it, nor
their mode of action, are known. ‘ (op. cit. , p30)
The Encyclopaedists argued that there is no God.

According to D’Holbach, all proofs of the existence
of god must rest upon ‘the false principle, that
matter is not self-existent, that, by its nature it is
an impossibility to move itself’ (op. cit. , p357).

The word ‘spirit’ is ‘a word that means that (he) is
ignorant of its essence’ (op. cit., p357). The idea of
god is as impossible as an effect without a cause.

The universe is the cause of itself, and everything
that happens in it is subject to fixed laws.

The Encyclopaedists’ prime concern was to vindicate what they saw to be the conclusions of natural
science. If the idealists’ quest for a justification of
the existence of the external world led them to a
conclusion that was incompatable with the views of
science, then .the materialist view was: so much
the worse for the idealists’ problem.

In fact, then, the Encyclopaedists’ ‘response’ to the
idealist is no response at all. It is not an answer
which the idealist might come to accept. It is
simply a rejection of the idealists’ proble.m.

Eighteenth-century ‘reductive’ materialism has
been taken up by Marxists and particularly by Lenin
(in Materialis.m and E.mpirio-Criticism, Lawrence
& \7ishart, 1948). Like the Encyclopaedists, Lenin
effecti vely denies the importance of the idealists’

proble.m. According to him, idealis.m is contrary to
our practice; we couldn’t act in the world if it were
correct. Idealis.m is violated by the assumption of
the existence of other living beings. On the other
hand, materialism is the theory of ‘habit, of
commonsense’ (ibid, p35). Natural science ‘instinct·
ively adheres to a materialist theory of knowledge’

(ibid, p37). Materialism is the view that ‘.matter is
primary and regards consciousness, thought,
sensation as secondary’ (ibid, p38).

There is another for.m of materialism which has
been taken up by Marxists. This form appears in
the 17th/18th century debate not so much with the
French .materialists but in the ideas of a philosopher
who, in other respects, .might fall in the idealists’

ca.mp. It appears earlier on in the 17th century, in
Locke, and in others associated with the Royal
Society in England. This strand contains an
epistemological and ontological aspect. By the
latter, the object of knowledge exists independently
of the subject – of the subject’s thought and activity
– and is reflected in the subject’s .mind. In Locke,
this view appeared as the view that the ‘ideas’ of
Pri.mary Qualities, which are caused in us by the
action of bodies in our organs, ‘resemble’ the
qualities. There is a set of properties of a substance
which exist independently of the subject, and which
are simply reflected in the subject’s mind. Each
idea has its corresponding, resembling cause (see
J. Locke, Essay concerning Human Understanding,
Book 11, Chapters I, VII and VIII).

This strand of the 17th and 18th century philosophical materialist viewpoint has been taken up by recent
Marxists (by D. Ruben and by Timpanaro).

Timpanaro tells us: ‘by materialism, we understand
above all, the priority of nature over mind’ (On
Materialism, p34, NLB, 1970). And Ruben quotes
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13

Lenin as giving the sense he wants to give to the
term ‘.materialis.m’: ‘the fundamental pre.mise of
materialis.m is the recognition of the external
world, of the existence of things outside and independent of our .mind’ (P4 Marxis.m and Materialism,
Harvester Press, 1977).

thetic, in that work, is one which ‘coincides with
humanis.m’ (3). And, in the Foreword, we read:

‘Real humanism has no .more dangerous ene.my in
Germany than spirituaIis.m or speculative idealis.m
which substitutes “self-consciousness” or the
“SPirit” for the real individual man’ (my italics).

In a moment, I shall argue against placing Marx
and Marxis.m within any of these parts of the philosophical .materialist tradition. But first I should
like to look at Althusser.

Materialism which ‘coincides with humanis.m’ is
represented by French and English socialis.m and
co.mmunis.m (4). These re.marks suggest, then, that
only a materialism which ‘coincides with humanism’

is one of which Marx approves. A full analysis of
the concept ‘humanis.m’ lies outside the scope of
this paper; however, it is probable that Marx, in
keeping with his conte.mporaries, meant it to have
to do with human self-perfection and self-development. If he did, then it is a ter.m which is describing peculiarly liuman qualities, qualities which
would be eliminated if they were reduced a la
reductive materialist. And in at least one sense
of ‘coincide’, humanis.m does not coincide with
‘reflective materialism’, for the latter is about
what there is, quite generally, while the for.mer is
specifically about human beings. In a puzzling
remark in the Economic and Philoso hical
Manuscripts of 1844 Lawrence & Wishart, 1974),
Marx described ‘humanis.m’ as ‘constituting the
unifying truth of both [idealism andmaterialisml ‘

(P181). Neither of the above two for.ms of .materialis.m could do this. And in a work which is also
critical of philosophy: ‘(Feuerbach) provided the
proof that philosophy is nothing else but religion
brought into thought and expanded by thought, hence
equally to be conde.mned as another form and
.manner of existence of the estrangement of the
essence of man’ (ibid, pI72). Thus it is unlikely
that the unifying truth of .materialis.m- and idealis.m
will be another philosophical theory.

Althusser and ‘Lenin and Philosophy’

According to the Althussetr’ of Lenin and Philosophy,
Lenin, in Materialis.m & Empirio-Criticis.m, broke
with previous conceptions of philosophy. Althusser
foists his own theoretical position precariously
upon Lenin: Lenin is supposed to have provided a
philosophy in Materialis.m & Empirio-Criticism,
a philosophy which arrives after the science (in this
case, historical .materialism) ‘ha(s) already lived
the ti.me of a long day’ (P41, Lenin & Philosophy &
other Essays, NLB, 1971). He did this, according
to Althusser, despite the fact that really he was
born too soon to have done it. He did it, Althusser
tells us, by breaking with the terms of reference
of previous conceptions of philosophy: ‘Lenin takes
up anti-E.mpiricist positions preCisely in the field
of an empiricist reference problematic’ (ibid, p52).

But Althusser, here, is dressing up Lenin in his
own clothes. And we are given no reason to believe
that they fit. Lenin is supposed to have treated
philosophy differently from the way it had previously
been viewed. But, where is this to be found in
Lenin? Why should we see Materialism and
Empirio -Criticism in that light? Althusser gives
us no reasons why we should read Materialism and
E.mpirio-Criticis.m as he tells us to. And to tell us,
as he does, that we must ‘read between the lines’

in order to find it all, is si.mply an evasion.

Althusser, then, gives us no reasons why we should
regard Lenin as having ‘broken with previous conceptions of philosophy’. And there are many reasons
why we should.not so regard hi.m. His account of
.materialis.m, and his reasons for wanting to uphold
a materialist philosophy, place him well within the
terms of reference of previous debates on the
subject.

But there are reasons why we should regard Marx’s
materialism as being different from philosophical
materialis m.

Reasons Why Marx’s Materialism Should
Not Be Seen As Philosophical Materialism
There are plenty of passages throughout the corpus
of Marx’s writings which suggest that the materialism with which he is sympathetic is not any version
of philosophical materialism, but is something
quite different. The work which perhaps might best
be cited as prOviding evidence in favour of his
holding so.me philosophical materialist theory – the
Holy Family – gives plenty of evidence to the
contrary. That work was written in Paris in 1844,
jointly with Engels, and the two of them already
had the idea of the ‘mode of production’ as playing
a central role in the develop.ment of society. The
conception of materialis.m to w’hich Man: is sympa14

Marx expresses his distaste for some of the concerns of both reflective and reductive .materialism
in the section of the Holy Fa.mily called ‘The
Speculative Circular Motion of Absolute Criticis.m
and the Philosophy of Self-Consciousness’. In
criticism of Spinoza’s substance, he says: ‘It is
“metaphysically travestied nature severed from
.man” t (p186, The Holy Family, Foreign Languages
Publishing House, Moscow, 1956). And he is
sceptical of ‘critical criticism’ for having a
‘respect for natural science’ if it ‘excludes from
the historical movement the theoretical and practical relations of .man to nature, natural science and
industry’ (ibid, p201). Throughout the Holy Family,
then, the thrust of Marx’s remarks about .materialism is towards a concern with human beings and
their productive activity. There is no sympathetic
discussion of any variant of philosophical materialis.m (5). Ruben quotes a passage in Chapter 5 of the
Holy Family as giving support to his clai.m that
Marx was a ‘reflective .materialist’. The passage
reads as follows: ‘If from real apples, pears,
3 ‘It (speculative metaphysics) will be defeated for ever by materialis m,
which has been perfected by the work of speculation itself, and coincides
with humanism.’ (quoted in On Religion, p60, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1957)
4 ‘As French and English Socialism and communism in the practical field
represents materialism which coincides with humanism.’ (ibid, p61)
5 The only gesture in this direction is this remark: ‘Speaking exactly and in
the prosaic sense, there are two strands in French materialis m; one
traces its origin to Des cartes , the other to Locke. The latter is mainly a
French development and leads directly to socialis m. The former, mechanical materialism, merges with what is properly called French natural
science.’ (ibid, p60) But notice that Lockean materialism only leads to
socialism, whereas the materialism whicb coincides with humanism is
represented by French and English socialism and communism.

strawberries, almonds I form the general notion
fruit, and if I go further and imagine that myabstract notion, the fruit .•• exists as an independent
essence of the pear, the apple, etc., I declare
therewith – speculatively expressed – the fruit to
be the “substance” of the pear, the apple, the
al.mond etc. • •. I then pronounce the apple, pear
and almond to be merely existing modes of the
fruit ••. ‘(6) But one can interpret this passage
more readily, not as he does, as an attack on the
Hegelian doctrine which involved ascribing to
thought the ability to create all of nature, but as a
‘criticism of the view that what is essential to
particular things is their being semblances of an
abstract idea: ‘the substance’. Not so, says Marx,
what is essential to particular things – particular
fruits – is their ‘real being’, their real ‘natural
being’.

In support of the view that Marx’s materialism is
different from both sorts of philosophical materialism, there is the 1st thesis on Feuerbach (7). It is
surely quite clear that one target here is reductive
materialism. The reductive materialist would want
to translate ‘human sensuous activity’ into some
property of matter, or into a relation between bits
of .matter. And, while it is not so obvious that Marx
is hostile towards reflective materialism per se, he
is clearly expressing criticism of any version of
such materialism which excludes ‘sensuous human
activity’ from the range of knowable objects. And
surely he is doing more than simply giving a reflectionist view here (8), for he emphasises that
‘sensuous human activity’ in particular is the ‘object’ upon which he wants to concentrate. It is not
at all a claim about the relation between ‘subject’

and ‘object’, rather it tells us that ‘human activity’

is a proper object of study. In other words, the
Thesis is not giving an epistemological view at all.

Elsewhere in his writings, Marx tends not to use
the noun ‘materialism’, he favours the adjectives
‘material’ and ‘materialist’. He refers to the
‘material conditions under which they live’ (p31,
German Ideology, Lawrence & Wishart), ‘material
relations’ (Marx to Anne Khovin, Selected Works,
p660), ‘material productive forces’ and ‘material
life’ (p31, German Ideology, and p368 Critique of
Political Econo.my in Selected Works), and to ‘the
materialist conception’ (of history) p369, Critique
of Political Economy, Selected Works). In these
connections, he is not discussing materialism as a
philosophical theory, but is alluding to his materialist conception of history. The latter is neither an
ontological nor an epistemolOgical theory, but is an
empirical theory about human beings in history.

As well as Marx’s views on ‘materialism’, there
are his views on philosophy. I have already quoted
once fro.m the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. In that work, too, in the course of criticising Hegel, Marx says: ‘The philosophic mind is
nothing but the estranged mind of the world thinking
6 This passage occurs as part of an onslaught upon speculative construction
in general, and it is attacking the idea that there is an abstract idea, the
‘essence’ ‘Fruit’ which is expressed in particular fruits. It is quoted in
Ruben, op. cit. p69.

7 ‘The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach
included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the
form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous
activity, practice, not subjectively. (p28 in Selected Works, Lawrence and
Wishart, 1968)
8 As Cunningham and Goldstick suggest he is doing in Activism and
Scientism in the IntePalretation of Marx’s 1st and 2nd Theses on Feuerbach.

Canadian Philosophic ASSOCiation, 1974.

within its self estrangement (p174 EPM). And in the
Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of
Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, his view is that criticism of the ‘political’ conclusions of the Hegelian
philosophy requires the abolition of philosophy (see
pp47 -49 in On Religion). There is also the famous
eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, which, though it is
not expressing quite such a strong view as the piece
just quoted, is critical of the role of philosophy:

‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world
in various ways. The point, however, is to change
it’ (p30 in Selected Works).

Apart from Marx’s own views on the subject, there
is another weak reason why Marx’smaterialism
should not be seen to be equivalent to philosophical
materialism. There is a tendency, amongst those
who place Marx inside the philosophical materialist
tradition, to forgo justifying the theory. Several
Marxists, recently, have denied that Marx’s
materialism can be justified. Lecourt puts the view
that it is of the essence of materialism not to seek
to found or to guarantee the objectivity of knowledge.

He mentions Bachelard who, as he puts it: ‘is posing
the thesis of the objectivity of scientific knowledges’ (p12 in Marxis.m and Episte.mology, D.

Lecourt, NLB, 1975). And he suggests that, in
Spinozist terms: the truth is its own measure.

Knowledge just is objective. This claim needs no
justification. And Ruben tells us that ‘the whole
epistemological progra.m.me of systematic justification of our knowledge must be rejected, along
with the impeachment of the .mind-independence of
the material world’ (p97, OPe cit.). He argues that
the atte.mpt to justify knowledge is an impossible
one. It cannot be carried out.

I see no good reason for the claim that knowledge of
the external world cannot be justified. A proof that
it cannot would bring in preCisely the problems that
would be involved in an attempted justification. One
would have to prove that necessarily the sceptical
problem will re -appear whatever the proposed
solution. Certainly, one can argue that particular
attempts to do the job have been unsuccessful. But
that is insufficient for what is required. And, if it
is of the essence of materialis m to deny the
importance of the idealists’ proble.m, then so much
the worse for materialism. I deny that it need be,
however.

Richard Norman, in Hegel’s Phenomenology, gives
what he tells us is Hegel’s reason why a theory of
knowledge cannot be justified. His argu.ment is that
it cannot be because whatevel’ is used to justify it
will be itself a claim to knowledge. Hegel, according to Norman, offers, instead of an external
criterion for knowledge, an internal one. But in
order for something to count as a criterion, we
must be able to distinguish it from what it is a
criterion of, so the objection, if it is an objection
to the use of an external criterion, is also an objection to the use of an internal one. But does the
objection hold water? I think not. One can provide
a criterion for knowledge – e. g. that it should consist in clear and distinct ideas – which is not itself
a claim to knowledge. It could be a stipulation, or
a claim that is hypostatised as true though is not
known to be.

I shall go on now to describe and to attempt to
justify Marx’smaterialis.m.

15

Marx’s Materialism
There are several ways of justifying Marx’s
materialis m. One .might adopt Lenin’s procedure;
that is, one could set out to show that the idealist’s
conclusion is incompatible with some belief that any
reasonable person must hold, but that the .materialist view is not. Or one might challenge the idealist
pre.mises, and then show that materialis.m is the
only reasonable -alternative. The trouble with the
first of these two ways of carrying on is that the
idealist always has a co.meback. He can argue:

‘Yes, of course my conclusion is inco.mpatible with
that belief, and I hold that belief. But that belief
needs justifying, and it was precisely in order to
justify it that I was led to .my conclusion. If I have
to choose between denying .my conclusion and denying that belief, I’ll choose the latter.’ It is only
when the acceptance of the idealist’s belief can be
shown to be clearly irrational, that the materialist’s
argument begins to bite. A difficulty with opting for
the second procedure may be that the idealist can
always retreat to premisses which are clearly selfevident, or, if not self-evident, at least necessarily
true in some sense. For example, a premiss like
-‘I am now writing’ put by .me, while not necessarily
true in the sense that its negation is self-contradictory, is, in some sense, undeniable. It cannot
coherently be said to be both false and meaningful.

The idealist may retract into premisses which are
like this one.

But there is another way of justifying a materialist
pOSition. This is simply to present arguments in its
favour. And, clearly, the stronger the arguments,
the .more likely they are to be acceptable. One
co.mpelling feature of Berkleyan idealism is its
attempt to ground knowledge on pre.misses which
are as certainly true as any can be. If one could
show that materialism rests on a similarly strong
foundation, then, the question: ‘Which theory ought
I to accept?’ will come to rest on something other
than the fact that one rests on sure foundations
while the other does not. It may turn out – perhaps
indeed, it must turn out this way – that this justifiPublished October 1 st
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16

cation will involve challenging the idealists’

premisses, and thus it will bring in the second
procedure.

Before justifying Marx’s materialism in this way I
must begin describing it. The subject material of
Marx’s materialist conception of history is material
life. What is this? An answer is: ‘{People], their
activity, and the material conditions under which
they live’ (p31, German Ideology). But why material
life? In order to give a general characterisation of
materialis m one would have to be less specific than
this surely? One would, but one might co.me to
capture the essence of materialis m by discussing
one of its aspects. And, after all, the idealist
restricts the domain of his concerns. The Berkleyan
idealist began with the question: ‘What is it that I
can claim to know with the highest possible degree
of certainty?’ Why begin with what I, the individual,
can clai m to know?

So let us continue discussing material life. In the
German Ideology Marx tells us: ‘We must begin by
stating the first premise of all human existence,
the premise, namely, that men must be in a position
to live in order to ‘make history’. But life involves,
before all else, eating, and drinking, a habitation,
clothing, and .many other things. The first
historical act is therefore the production of means
to satisfy these needs. ‘ (p39, The German Ideology).

He goes on, in that work, to proffer a distinguishing
characteristic of human beings from animals: ‘They
themselves [men] begin to distinguish themselves
from animals as soon as they began to produce
their means of subsistence •.. ‘ (P7).

In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,
Marx tells us that, in contra-distinction to the
Hegelian view, ‘Man is a natural being’ … ‘he is
an active natural being’ (P181).

Can one give any of this the kind of justification the
idealist clai ms to be able to offer for his basic
premisses? One might state Marx’s ‘basic’

pre.mise as follows:

1(1) Natural beings have basic needs .l

Let us assume that by ‘basic need’ is meant ‘need
that must be satisfied before other needs can be’.

And, further, a need is, by definition, a want that
must be satisfied.

Assuming that there are such things as ‘natural
beings’, (1) may be falsified in one of two ways.

The being might have no needs at all, or it might
have no basic needs. What would a being with nonbasic, but no basic needs be like? It would b& a
creature with bodily characteristics, and certain
high level wants and capacities, but without, e. g.

the need to eat, to defecate, to breathe, to exhale
carbon dioxide. Certainly one can imagine very
different forms of life from those we have got isn’t this just what we are being asked to conceive
of when we are told to think about the possibility of
life on another planet? But to argue that there
could be beings with wants but no needs is rather
like arguing that there could be a mathematical
series that began in the middle, and it really was
the middle. Wouldn’t we simply redefine what
counted as the beginning of the series in such a
case? Thus the series of natural numbers might
start at number 10; number 10 would be the first
member of the series. Similarly, the supposition

that there could be beings with high-level wants but
no basic needs, ought to be interpreted as a supposition to the effect that there could be beings with
different basic needs fro.m ours. Surely, this is
part of the point that is made by Marx when he tells
us that needs change with changes in the productivity
of labour and in the organisation of production.

The mathe.matical series analogy can be used to
shOW, too, that natural beings must have some
needs. The idea that there could be a natural being
with no wants or needs is like the notion of a series
with no members. The idea of a series contains the
notion of something’s forming it; Similarly, the
concept of a ‘being’ contains the idea of something’s
maldng it into a being. What .makes it a being is a
collection of needs.

Given that there are natural beings, then, it see.ms
to be a sort of necessary truth to say that they have
basic needs.

There are two further premisses required for the
‘foundation’ of Marx’s materialism. These are:

(2) Basic needs must be satisfied.1
and
(3) In order to satisfy their basic needs, sO.me
natural beings must produce their .means of
subsistence.

One might justify (2) in the following .manner. If the
natural being is to survive, it must satisfy its basic
needs. Or, put another way, if the being is to continue to be a being with basic needs, it must satisfy
them. We could insert the extra pre.miss:

1/) Natural beings have basic needs, and they

have them for a period of time.

(1/) .must be true, because if it is allowed that the
being might cease to have basic needs, that would
be to contradict (1). (2) then gives one of the
necessary conditions for the truth of (1).

(3) can be given a similar kind of justification. If
natural beings continually went around consuming
everything without prodUCing, they would eventually
have nothing left to consume. So, in order to
survive, or to continue to be a natural being, at
least some of them must produce. This time, one
has to interpret (1) as implying that the being has
basic needs for a relatively long period of time.

Then (3) becomes a necessary condition for (2).

(For the sake of the argument, ‘natural being’ in
(1) and (2) can be taken to include animals, while
in (3) those who produce may be construed as the
human beings. )

the external world. The sceptic is taken to doubt or
deny that objects continue’ to exist when not perceived. The argument against this takes the form of
proving that the truth of what he doubts or denies is
a necessary condition for so.mething that he cannot
doubt or deny being true. Similarly, one might
imagine some kind of ‘sceptic’ denying that natural
beings must produce. But they must produce if they
are to continue to have basic needs, a view we take
our ‘sceptic’ to accept. And the si.milarity in the
argument to sO.me that are used against the sceptic
provides SO.me support for the view that this
‘.materialist’ argument is one which the idealist
should not take too lightly.

If the arguments I have offered stand up, this

‘foundation’ of Marx’s materialism can be given a
si.milar kind of justification to the theory of the
Berkeleyan idealist.

What I a.m arguing effectively, then, is that Marx’s
materialist conception of history should be construed as a kind of ‘naturalis.m’. It is a theory about
human need. Clearly it must be differentiated from
other forms of naturalism – one distinguishing mark
will be that as well as its being a theory about
the way in which human needs are satisfied, it also
concerns the production of new needs: people not
only reproduce their needs but develop new ones and
change themselves in the process
Upon these roots grow the various strands of Marx’s
materialist conception of history.

The view outlined above is unlike Althusser ‘s. It
does not hypostatise two logically separate languages – dialectical and historical materialis m – one
being used as a vantage point from wbich the other
is justified. So it is not o!len to the objections to
which that position succumbs.

The Materialist Conception of History
The idea of, natural beings as producers of means of
subsistence has been justified. The rest of the theory
develops out of this idea – that of natural beings as
producers, and, in particular from the concept of a
‘mode of production’ •
I’d like, now, to examine that concept and to attempt
to work out a way around a problem that has reared
its head at various moments in the history of Marxism. I’ll outline the problem by delving a little into
the state of ‘philosophical Marxis m’ at the ti me of
Stalin and subsequently.

Another way of putting this is ‘if (1) is true, then so
are (2) and (3)’. But (1) is necessarily true.

The justification of (3) depends upon the assumption
that nature reproduces itself less rapidly that consumers consume. Certainly this is accepted as
true, in fact, but must it be? I think so, for the
following reason: if something reproduced itself
more quickly than it consumed, it would be producing gradually less and less ‘worthy’specimens,
speci mens that would eventually die out through lack
of nourishment. This point can be generalised to
support the criterion that nature must reproduce
itself less rapidly than consumers consume.

This argument is almost parallel to some arguments
against the sceptic about the existence of objects in

17

DUring the Stalin epoch it was supposed to be
commonplace in the Marxist movement that philosophical materialism entailed historical materialism and that, from the philosophical materialist
thesis that matter existed first, it followed that it is
changes in ‘the material life’ of society – in the
productive forces – that bring about major changes
in social life (see J. Stalin, Dialectical Materialism,
pp382 -86 in Stalin, Works, Vo!. I, Lawrence and
Wishart, 1963). Humanist and other subsequent
Marxist thinkers found fault with this. Apart from
the dubious political views that were justified in its
name, it appeared to lead to fatalis m, and to allow
no room for an independent culture. And, if ideas
were only reflections of things, how could ideas
revolutionize things? People were keen, therefore,
to disassociate Marx from determinism. They
referred to works of the early Marx, and particularly
to the Theses on Feuerbach, in support of an antideterminist position. Here is Sidney Hook on
Thesis I:

Marx sought to save the idealist’s insight that
knowledge is active. Otherwise his own historical
materialis m would result in fatalis m. . .. The
starting point of perception is not an object on
th e one hand and a subj ect opposed to it on the
other, but an interacting process within which
sensations are just as much the resultant of the
active mind (the total organism) as the things
acted upon. What is beheld in perception, then,
depends just as much upon the perceiver as upon
the antecedent cause of the perception.

(pp88-89, Towards an Understanding of K. Marx,
S. Hook, London, 1935)
And many others mention Engels’ Letter to Bloch
in support of the view that the ‘base’ of society
does not simply determine the superstructure,
rather the two interact. In that letter, Engels tells
us:

According to the materialist conception of history,
the determining element in history is ultimately
the production and reproduction of real life.

More than this, neither Marx nor I have ever
asserted .•.•
(p488, Selected Works, Vo!. 11)
But, contrary to this, it seems that even the early
Marx is some kind of determinist. Here he is in
1852:

The class struggle necessarily leads to the
dictatorship of the proletariat.

(my italics) (p452 in Selected Works, Vo!. 11,
K. Marx to Weydermeyer)
And, earlier still, in 1844:

The question is not what thIS or that proletarian,
or even the whole of the proletariat at the moment considers as its aim. The question is what
the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that
being, it will be compelled to do.

(Chapter IV, Section 4, The Holy Family)
Engels put forward a determinist viewpoint in AntiDuhring, a work which was written consequent on
an agreed division of labour with Marx (9). And
there are other reasons for taking the ‘determinist’

line. First of all, there are passages in the later
works where this view is taken – see, for instance,
the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

There is al~o a good pragmatic reason for supposing that Marx held some kind of determinist view.

According to the materialist conception of history,
9 See F. Cunningham and D. Goldstick, op.cit. for a determinist
interpretation of the theses and for arguments supporting the view that
Marx and Engels were in agreement most of the time.

18

it is the production and reproduction of real life that

is the determining element in history; this is true
whether or not one adds the adverb ‘ultimately’.

In other words, it is the production and reproduction of real life which is causally responsible for
ideas, conceiving and so on. And this is a determinis m about the production of ideas etc. As yet
insufficient has been said for us to know exactly
what is determining what; nonetbeless it is a determinist theory. If we deny the deter minis m we must
deny the ‘determination’ of ideas by the production
of real life; we must, therefore, deny the materialist conception of history. Any variant of historical
materialism which doubts that it is a determinist
theory must be a watered-down version; one which,
in the end, might just as well be labelled an
‘idealist’ theory as a ‘materialist’ one.

So the problem then becomes: given that Marx was
some kind of determinist, how is it that, also on
his view, ideas can revolutionise things? I propose
to intro duce two constraints upon a successful
account of the part of the materialist conception of
history that relates to this problem. First of all,
it must be compatible with Marx’s determinism.

Yet it must allow that the proletariat can revolutionize things; and, secondly, it must retain individuals
and classes as pivotal to the theory.

I propose to attempt to uncover a solution to the
problem by discussing the relation between
‘material life ‘ and ‘consciousness’. My argument
will not necessarily bear on the question of the
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relation between the material ‘base’ of society and
the ‘superstructure’.

I

J

Marx mentions the relation in several places, and
offers what appear, on the face of things, to be
incompatible accounts of its nature. Here are some
examples:

The production of ideas, of conceptions, of
consciousness, is at first directly interwoven
with the material activity and the material
intercourse of men, the language of real life.

(my italics) (p32, The German Ideology)
Later in the same passage, we find out that:

Consciousness can never be anything else than
cons cious existence, and the existence of men
is their conscious life process.

(my italics) (ibid, p33)
But, in the Preface to the Critique of Political
Economy, we find:

It is their social being that determines (or
conditions) their consciousness.

(p181, Selected Works)
It looks as though there are at least two different

,
1

accounts of the nature of the relation here. On the
one hand, it is identity – consciousness is one and
the same thing as conscious existence. On the other,
it seems to be some sort of causal relation consciousness is determined of conditioned by life.

I suggest that, rather than charging Marx with
inconsistency, we interpret the relation as having
a double aspect. There is a relation of identity
between the tWo but the relation is also causal.

How can this be? Kripke argues that statements of
identity, if true, are necessarily true, because
they concern a relation between ‘rigid designators’:

terms which designate the same object in any
possible world in which they designate at all (see
S. Kripke, pp309-43, ‘Naming & Necessity’in
Semantics of Natural Languages, eds. D.Davidson
& F. Harman, Reidel, 1972). On his view, natural
kind terms, as well as names, are rigid designators. Now, if the statement that ‘consciousness is
conscious existence’ were necessarily true, then,
for Kripkean reasons, it is highly unlikely that
there could be a causal relation of any sort between
consciousness and conscious existence. Even if one
doubts the truth of some views on the subject, the
view that the causal relation between a cause and
its effect, if it holds on the actual world, holds in
every possible world, is highly implausible. But I
don’t think we need hold that the statement in
question is necessarily true, even if one believes
that names and natural kind terms are rigid
designators. For the terms in question do not
designate rigidly.

person rigidly; rather it designates the individual
for a particular period of his existence. ‘The one
discussing wages’ is the one and the same person
as ‘the one working … ‘ but there is a counterfactual situation in which that person is not the one
discussing wages.

I am not arguing, here, for a view like Frege’s
(see G. Frege:’On Sense and Reference’, in Trans.

from Frege, Blackwell, 1966) – that identity
statements are contingent because they hold between
items under different descriptions. I’m suggesting,
rather, that there is a class of identity statements
which are contingent, because the two terms designate different ‘time slices’ of the one individual.

On Frege’s view, the statement ‘Guirisanker is
Everest’is contingent, but it need not bE} on the
view I am advocating. What makes it contingent,
on the Fregean view, is the point of view from
which one and the same thing is observed. But it is
not the relation between observer and person which
produces the contingency of the statement I am
considering. Rather, it is produced by the two
descriptions picking out different ‘time slices’ of
the one individual. So the above argument need not
bear on the question whether or not identity statements between names are necessarily true.

If the relation is a contingent identity, it is not

ruled out that it is also causal. And I’d like to
support the view that it is causal, by looking at an
analogy. One might describe a particular policeman either as ‘that policeman’ or as ‘that man’;
and there could be the appropriate relation of
identity between the person and itself. But one could
also suppose it to be true that the man as a man is
conditioned or determined by the man as a policeman. The person’s life as a man cQuld well be
conditioned by his role as a policeman. Similarly,
it could be true that people as thinking beings are
conditioned or determined by people as producers.

The individual qua thinking being is a reflection of
the person as producer. To take our example: the
one who is discussing wages is conditioned or
determined by the person working on the production
line.

How does this relate to the determinism problem?

It is compatible with Marx’s determinism, because

the view is that people as thinkers are determined
(or conditioned) by people as producers. But since

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To support this point, I’d like to look at a parallel
identity statement between singular terms .to the
one we have been considering. We could take: ‘the
one working on the production line’ as a particular
instance of the general term: ‘producer of use
values’ – taking ‘conscious existence’ to relate to
production of use values. And ‘the one discussing
wages with the manager’ could count as an instance
of ‘those with consciousness’. If the two descriptions are true of one and the same person, then the
one discussing wages is identical with the one
wprking on the production line. But the relation
between ‘the one working .•. ‘ and ‘the one discussing wages’ is not a rigid relation. This is because
‘the one discussing wages’ does not designate the

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19

it allows that some thoughts may not be conditioned
by the environment, it is also compatible with
Marx’s view that a person or a class may influence
the environment.

A problem that might arise is the following, put by
Cohen as an objection to Engels’ graveside speech.

According to Engels:

Marx discovered the law of development of all
human history; the simple fact that mankind
must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and
clothing, before it can pursue politics, science,
art, religion etc., and that, therefore, the
production of the immediate material means of
subsistence and consequently the degree of
economic development attained by a given people
or during a given epoch form the foundation upon
which the state institutions, the legal conceptions,
art and even the ideas and religion of the people
concerned, have been evolved, and in the light
of which they must, therefore, be explained •.•
(see G. A. Cohen in Essays in Honor of E. H. Carr,
p83)
Cohen comments that this passage is offering us
.one of two inferences: either that from (a) Men must
produce food if they are to engage in politics etc. ,
to (b) the activity of material production is the foundation on which those activities rest; or that from
(b) to ‘(c) the activity of material production,
together with the degree of economic development,
explains those activities. And he labels (c) the
‘indispensability clai m ‘. Cohen responds: ‘The
-indispensability claim is impregnable, but it cannot
make material production prior to mental, as far
as explanation is concerned. For mental production
is also indispensable to life and indispensability is
a transitive relation.’ He suggests that there are
two ways in which material production requires
‘mental production. First, mental activity enters
into material production, and the capacity to perform those activities depends upon mental production and general culture; and, secondly, religion
and/ or law and/ or ideology are essential to
secure order in the labour process (to diSCipline
the labouring agents) and an ordering of the labour
process (to organise production).

Now Engels’ view is different from mine, because
I arIl not explaining mental production by reference
to material production; nonetheless if Cohen is
right that mental production must enter into
material production my thesis would not be compatible with Marx’s determinism. But I do not think
it must. There are material productions not involving mental activity – for instance, a bee building a
hive, or an ant a nest. And there is none involved
for particular people who are performing movements in relation to a conveyor belt that they have
carried out many times before. Perhaps, too,
there was none in the Stone Age character’s first
rubbing of the two flints together. Maybe it was
done by instinct. Moreover, primitive communism
required no religion and/ or law and/ or ideology.

I conclude, then, that the objection does not affect
my argument.

Another objection that· may be levelled against my
argument is that I have re-introduced an oversimplified account of the relation between ‘material
production’ and ‘consciousness’, one which the
young Marx might have upheld but which Marx in
20

hl.s maturity would certainly have rejected. It is
worth noting that, as this objection would probably
be put, it would be phrased in terms of the relation
between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’. For instance,
Stuart Hall (in ‘Base and Superstructure’, in Class,
Hegemony and Party, Lawrence & Wishart, 1977)
argues that the young Marx saw the relation between
‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ as an identity, the latter
simply reflecting the former. He claims that Marx
began rejecting this in the 18th Brumaire, in the
light of the non-correspondence of the ‘classes in
dominance at the economic level and the class
factions in power, at the level of politics and state’

(ibid, p57).

Hall assumes that the immature Marx held three
views conjointly: that ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’

are identical; that the one reflects the other (ibid,
p53); and simple economic determinism (ibid, p53).

He does not so much as hint at their inco.mpatibility
or suggest that this might 00 a reason for doubting
that Marx held all three. It is apparently obvious to
Hall that Marx held all three (though he does not
distinguish them one from another) and obvious that
each – or, at least, simple economic determinism is incorrect. I hope I have said enough to dispel the
illusion that economic determinism is simply and
obviously wrong. My formulation concerns the relation between ‘material production’ and ‘consciousness’ and, though it is compatible with determination, it does not lead to the one being nothing but a
reflex of the other.

To conclude this section: I have offered an interpretation of the relation between ‘material production’

and ‘consciousness’ which is compatible with
Marx’s determinism, but which allows that people
may revolutionize things.

I make no claims to have solved the various problems concerning the relation between the base of
society and the ‘legal and political superstructure’.

Overall Conclusion
Marx’smaterialism, I have argued, is not a philosophical materialism of any sort. His materialism
is equivalent to his materialist conception of
history. Despite its not being a philosophical theory,
it does not follow that it cannot be justified in the
kind of way an idealist might come to accept.

This is only the beginnings of an account of all that
the materialist conception of history has to offer us,
but it is one which remains largely within Marx’s
conceptual territory. To that extent, perhaps unlike
Althusser’s theory, it can lay claim to being
Marxist.

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